I hear a lot of people talk speak proudly about how they only ever shoot in manual, and it’s inspired me to write this post, because, quite frankly, I think it’s a load of rubbish. Here’s the way I like to shoot and the different modes that I use. It's important to remember that whatever works for you and your photography is fine, just so long as you're getting the results you want.
I should start out by saying that I use Aperture Priority, Shutter Speed Priority and Manual modes an equal amount, but I use them all for different things, but more importantly, different times of day and lighting situations.
When I have plenty of available light, I use Aperture Priority as it allows me to set my aperture to where I know it will be sharpest and usually the best depth of field. That’s usually around f/8-f/11, a couple stops larger than the smallest aperture. Shooting in this mode means that the shutter speed will change accordingly, and at longer focal lengths where you need a faster shutter speed to prevent from motion blur this may be a problem, but if I have to, I can always widen the aperture.
When there's less light, I find it best to use Shutter Speed Priority, because you can fix an under exposed photo in post production, but there's nothing you can do about a blurry one. If I'm shooting on a 35mm lens, I like the shutter speed to be around, 1/50 of a second, but I can hold it still for 1/25 if I need to. Again, the aperture will sort itself out, even if the camera's flashing a warning because there's not enough light, it will still take the photo. If you were to shoot in low light in manual, your camera would tell you that the aperture isn't wide enough and you need to wide it or slow down your shutter speed, but if you were to change it, you would essentially be doing what Shutter Speed Priority was doing for you in the first place.
Manual mode comes out in my camera when I'm in unfamiliar conditions, and more often than not, when I'm using my flash in the dark or when I'm in controlled conditions. I'll give you an examples of that; last night I was shooting with a model and I had my shutter speed set to 1/10, aperture of f/2.8, ISO 640 and my flash compensation boosted by 2ev. I know that because of the speed at which my flash fires, it will freeze the motion of the model and any camera shake that my hand may produce becomes insignificant. All this being said, I would suggest that everyone learn on manual mode because it's like learning to drive a car in manual – the more you learn, the more knowledge you'll have to help you in the future.
I've had mixed feelings about ISO in the past, but we seem to be getting along well together now. When I first started out, I knew that high ISO's made you photos grainy and reduced the quality, and back then, that's all I needed to know to not want to go near it. Now though, I've come around to the idea of a higher ISO as I work to produce interesting backgrounds in my photography. I use a low ISO when I can, but when I'm shooting at night with a flash, I hate having a dark and dull background because I'm busy relying on my flash to illuminate my subject. When you raise your ISO, you fill in much more background detail and in the right conditions, it doesn't appear to be too grainy at all.
In low light conditions without a flash, you'll want to lower your shutter speed, raise your ISO and widen your aperture to produce the most amount of light you can. In my photo below, I shot at f/1.4, for 1/25 of a second at ISO800 without a flash.
This is part of the reason that shooting in a priority mode isn't a problem for me is because I pay strict attention to the metering mode that I'm using. I've written a whole tutorial on metering modes, but I can tell you now, I only ever use 2 modes; Evaluative and Spot. Before I go into detail as to why I use those modes, let's have a look at the two modes I don't use; Partial and Center – Weighted Average. Partial is basically a larger version of spot metering which seems a little pointless to me and Center – Weighted Average is like a less intelligent Evaluative metering mode.
Evaluative is the most complex and modern way of metering that your camera will have. It collects data from across the whole frame and even gives priority to the area that you’re focusing on. The camera will look at a scene and see a really bright area like the sun and take that into account when trying to work out the best exposure – this will reduce the amount of contrast and silhouettes. This has different names for different manufacturers and software, but they all do basically the same t
Spot metering is like Partial metering, only the dot in the center is smaller, roughly 5% of the frame. This is good for smaller subjects and I personally use it over partial because I know that any light surrounding the subject, won’t be a problem. It’s a more advanced way of working out the exposure for your camera because it’s metering for such a small area; the rest of the scene may not be correct and that leaves it up to you to work it out on your own. I use this when I only want to meter for a small portion of the frame, like when I'm shooting into the sun and don't want the camera to consider lens flare or sun.
It's certainly worth mentioning that I only ever shoot in RAW these days so I don't tend to worry about my white balance too much as I can fix it in post with very little work. I leave my camera on AWB which is auto white balance to capture the majority of situations and then I'll fix whatever needs fixing later. I will on occasion switch to Shade or Cloudy, but I find that often the presets aren't accurate enough or the weather changes too quickly.
The only other mode that I use on a regular basis is Tungsten as I spend a lot of time using my camera inside in the evening, such as down the pub. When you're in these sorts of conditions, you'll typically find that the only light source you're dealing with is a tungsten light so it's nice to deal with that then, so that you have less work to do in post. The WB that I use massively depends on the lighting I use so it may be different for you, I just very rarely find myself working with fluorescent light.
When I'm shooting in RAW and working with model, I carry a grey card around my neck and get my model to hold it up to the camera every time the lighting changes, because I can the go into my post production software and use the colour picker to choose it as my neutral grey, which is a lot easier and less time consuming than doing it manually. If you don't understand much of what I'm writing about here, I strongly suggest you go back and read the WB post which has been linked across this page.
First thing's first, I have not used a pop up flash in years. Don't touch it, just stay away from it and replace your flash with an external unit – the difference is clear. I go into this is much more detail here if you're interested. Looking past that though, I use my external unit is three main ways; fill light, off camera to produce depth, and to light up a room or subject. I almost always try to diffuse the light or bounce it off of something where possible as it makes the light look a lot more natural.
I speak in detail about fill flash in my post on shooting into the sun and my post on fill flash; it's basically a really good way of fighting with digital camera's relatively poor dynamic range. You get to fill in the light where it's needed, and it works even better when you take your flash off your camera.
Off camera flash is another topic I've written in depth about recently, and I use it when I can as it creates a much more realistic look and adds depth to the photo. It can get a little bit hard to balance the weight of my camera and lens in one hand while trying to position the flash with the other, but I make it work where possible. If I'm out on a shoot with a model, it's a lot easier and I bring two flashes with me set up on tripods to make my photos look better.
Lastly, I use the flash to illuminate my subject or bounce the light about a room so that the subject is well lit. If possible, I'll try to bounce the light, but it's not always that simple. The photo below was taken with the flash bounced on the ceiling and that provided enough light for my to set my aperture for f/4.5.